"The Genial Atmosphere of Liberty"... and "The Patriotic Part"
This speaks, of course, of the term "Roman Catholic." Even as succeeding generations eventually (perhaps unconsciously) took the adjective as a badge of honor and came to own it, in the early -- and even not so early -- days of the Republic, its use was born from parts outside to serve as a shorthand that this body faithful comprised a foreign "other" ill-suited to the context of a free, democratic (and, at its inception, Protestant-dominant) land.
Not to fan sectarian flames or anything, but here, it's fitting to recall the paranoia of the mid-19th century, when -- amid the first massive waves of immigration that, within three decades, transformed a relatively small, mostly-English fold into a diverse mass and the nation's largest religious group -- the era's politics were replete with allusions to an alarmist master plan that (at least as it was "revealed" in the papers and on campaign stumps) would imminently see the Rome-dispatched newcomers smuggle the Pope into the country by means of a sub-Atlantic tunnel they were charged with boring, the immigrants fulfilling their purpose of arrival with their installation of the transported pontiff in his new Vatican: the White House. (Among other things -- read: the burning of our churches in several locales -- the hysteria of the times saw a stone given by Pius IX for the Washington Monument seized and dumped into the Potomac River by riotous mobs, as some tried to claim that the Pope made the trip hidden inside his gift, to complete his rumored scheme of American domination.)
Clearly, some things never change -- many among the masses actually believed the hype. Even if things aren't exactly perfect in our own time, though, admit it -- the state of affairs is rather better these days. And even a brief look at the journey between gives a rich sense of the long, oft-tortured, ever-evolving road of what it means to be "American Catholic," and how each age brings its particular challenges on one or the other side of the divide.
Considering the current scene, perhaps it's worth adding that the First Amendment was adopted about a block and a half from what, in "genial atmosphere of liberty," quickly became by far the largest and wealthiest parish of the 13 founding States.
Not even a half-century after this church's first public space in the post-Reformation British Empire was quietly opened off a tiny alley (top), hidden from the surrounding city's sight, it was just across the street, in the considerably bigger successor to the pioneering "Romish chapel," where the Continental Congress -- Washington included -- attended a solemn Te Deum on the third anniversary of Independence. And sure enough, a decade later, the same sacred sentence that enshrined the people's right to worship and assemble in peace would likewise ensure the freedom of the press.
In other words, the two aren't just crucial pillars of the American experiment, but neighbors. And colorful as the relationship can be sometimes, then as now, the better their interaction with and defense of each other is, so too is the good of the whole.
As a coda, though, it bears remembrance that the very same church (above) where Washington and the Founders had their first live experience of "Popery" -- the "father" of the United States Navy buried in its backyard -- would, in subsequent decades, itself become a battleground: a state born not of tyranny from on high nor restraint from any civil force, but turmoil among its own, whose notions of a Catholicism egregiously adapted to its new surroundings required an heightened sense of internal order.
Ensuing for years, as excommunications and expulsions flew back and forth, that fight and its resolution would dictate a significant measure of the Stateside church's future course… that is, until the pendulum of ecclesial culture reached, to staggering proportions, an opposite excess. And when it did, a return to balance was called into being not by internal means, but through the very societal pillars that helped inflame the drama of two centuries past, necessitating the domestic fold's first great ad intra shift.
In the 191st year since William Hogan and his trustees schemed to wrest control of St Mary's Cathedral from its bishop, on the very same turf where -- in the standoff's wake -- it was declared that "the question of lay interference in [church] administration [was] settled for all time," in the city that surrounds the nation's birthplace, the familiar demarcations of an old war have returned powerfully to the surface in ways unseen since those heady days of the 1820s.
And so, yet again, the pendulum shifts in this Cradle of Liberty… and as it does, the lone truly settled answer of prior times only proves itself anew: namely, that where the torches of external persecution and civil edict invariably aimed and failed, the short-sighted divisions and self-serving excesses among this church's own elements have ever more wildly succeeded.
However long, though, hopefully it's a sensible stab at pointing out the better angels that have underpinned the crossroads of Catholicism and America at the dance's best on both sides: mutual integrity, a sense of community within and outside alike, an eagerness toward both giving and accepting a hand of cooperation extended in good faith and, above all, the priceless witness of shared sacrifice -- the latter of which, in the civil sense, makes for a bond literally sealed in blood.
Not for nothing, see, was the early fold's defining "hymn in stone" sketched into reality by the architect of the Washington Capitol. Yet while Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption (above) -- the nation's first cathedral -- stands as the most enduring vision of the founding hope and the degree to which it's been realized, for those of us unable to make a pilgrimage there today, here are three cornerstone texts from different points along the path that underscore the genuinely holy union that is this faith's fertile presence in this place....
At least, when it's done right.
First, in response to a congratulatory message from the nation's fold -- then numbering some 25,000 souls spread across the 13 States (a people served by all of 22 priests) -- George Washington's March 1790 Letter to the Stateside church on his election to the Presidency:
Gentlemen:...next, the American Catholic equivalent of the "Gettysburg Address" -- the 1877 "Trastevere Speech" of the freshly-elevated James Cardinal Gibbons (above, with the 26th President) on taking possession of his titular church, marking Rome's first prominent defense of democratic government:
While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station in my country; I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe, that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity, enhances the pleasure which I should otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.
I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candor of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.
The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.
As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.
I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity.
The assignment to me by the Holy Father of this beautiful basilica as my titular church fills me with feelings of joy and gratitude which any words of mine are inadequate to express. For, as here in Rome I stand within the first temple raised in honor of the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, so in my far-off home, my own Cathedral Church, the oldest in the United States, is also dedicated to the Mother of God. This venerable edifice in which we are gathered leads us back in contemplation to the days of the catacombs. Its foundation was laid by Pope Calixtus in the year of our Lord, 224. It was restored by Pope Julius in the fourth century, and renovated by another Supreme Pontiff in the twelfth.(Queried by a Protestant woman from high society about the scope of papal infallibility in the wake of its definition at the First Vatican Council, the young archbishop of the "Premier See" famously illustrated the dogma's limits by replying that "When I see him, the Holy Father calls me 'Jibbons.'")
That never-ceasing solicitude which the Sovereign Pontiffs have exhibited in erecting these material temples, which are the glory of this city, they have also manifested on a larger scale in rearing spiritual walls to Zion throughout Christendom in every age. Scarcely were the United States formed into an independent government, when Pope Pius VII established a Catholic hierarchy and appointed the illustrious John Carroll the first Bishop of Baltimore. Our Catholic community in those days numbered a few thousand souls, and they were scattered chiefly through the States of New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. They were served by a mere handful of priests. But now, thanks to the fructifying grace of God, the grain of mustard seed then planted has grown to a large tree, spreading its branches through the length and breadth of our fair land. Where only one bishop was found in the beginning of this century, there are now seventy-five exercising spiritual jurisdiction. For this great progress we are indebted, under God and the fostering vigilance of the Holy See, to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic.
Our Holy Father, Leo XIII, in his luminous encyclical on the constitution of Christian states, declares that the Church is not committed to any form of civil government. She adapts herself to all. She leavens all with the sacred leaven of the Gospel. She has lived under absolute monarchies, under constitutional monarchies, in free republics, and everywhere she grows and expands. She has often, indeed, been hampered in her Divine mission. She has even been forced to struggle for her existence wherever despotism has cast its dark shadow, like a plant shut out from the blessed light of heaven. But in the genial atmosphere of liberty she blossoms like a rose.
For myself, as a citizen of the United States, and without closing my eyes to our shortcomings as a nation, I say, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection, without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ. Our country has liberty without license, and authority without despotism. She rears no wall to exclude the stranger from among us. She has few frowning fortifications to repel the invader, for she is at peace with all the world. She rests secure in the consciousness of her stength and her good will toward all. Her harbors are open to welcome the honest emigrant who comes to advance his temporal interests and find a peaceful home.
But, while we are acknowledged to have a free government, perhaps we do not receive the credit that belongs to us for having, also, a strong government. Yes, our nation is strong, and her strength lies, under the overruling guidance of Providence, in the majesty and supremacy of the law, in the loyalty of her citizens and in the affection of her people for her free institutions. There are, indeed, grave social problems now employing the earnest attention of the citizens of the United States, but I have no doubt that, with God's blessing, these problems will be solved by the calm judgment and sound sense of the American people, without violence or revolution, or any injury to individual right.
As an evidence of his good will for the great republic in the West, as a mark of his appreciation of the venerable hierarchy of the United States, and as an expression of his kind consideration for the ancient See of Baltimore, our Holy Father has been graciously pleased to elevate its present incumbent, in my humble person, to the dignity of the purple. For this mark of his exalted favor I beg to tender the Holy Father my profound thanks in my own name and in the name of the clergy and faithful. I venture to thank him also in the name of my venerable colleagues, the bishops, as well as the clergy and Catholic laity of the United States. I presume also to thank him in the name of our separated brethren in America, who, though not sharing our faith, have shown that they are not insensible—indeed, that they are deeply sensible—of the honor conferred upon our common country, and have again and again expressed their admiration for the enlightened statesmanship and apostolic virtues and benevolent character of the illustrious Pontiff who now sits in the Chair of St. Peter.
And lastly, in this year of his elevation to the altars, the remarks of Blessed John Paul II on his September 1987 departure from Detroit, which wrapped up the late pontiff's two-week tour of these shores, by far the longest of his five US visits....
...and, well, what Wujek said:
As I leave, I express my gratitude to God also for what he is accomplishing in your midst. With the words of Saint Paul, I too can say with confident assurance "that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1, 6-7). And so I am confident too that America will be ever more conscious of her responsibility for justice and peace in the world. As a nation that has received so much, she is called to continued generosity and service towards others.
As I go, I take with me vivid memories of a dynamic nation, a warm and welcoming people, a Church abundantly blessed with a rich blend of cultural traditions. I depart with admiration for the ecumenical spirit that breathes strongly throughout this land, for the genuine enthusiasm of your young people, and for the hopeful aspirations of your most recent immigrants. I take with me an unforgettable memory of a country that God has richly blessed from the beginning until now.
America the beautiful! So you sing in one of your national songs. Yes, America, you are beautiful indeed, and blessed in so many ways:
- in your majestic mountains and fertile plains;
- in the goodness and sacrifice hidden in your teeming cities and expanding suburbs;
- in your genius for invention and for splendid progress;
- in the power that you use for service and in the wealth that you share with others;
- in what you give to your own, and in what you do for others beyond your borders;
- in how you serve, and in how you keep alive the flame of hope in many hearts;
- in your quest for excellence and in your desire to right all wrongs.
Yes, America, all this belongs to you. But your greatest beauty and your richest blessing is found in the human person: in each man, woman and child, in every immigrant, in every native-born son and daughter.
For this reason, America, your deepest identity and truest character as a nation is revealed in the position you take towards the human person. The ultimate test of your greatness in the way you treat every human being, but especially the weakest and most defenceless ones.
The best traditions of your land presume respect for those who cannot defend themselves. If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life! All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person:
- feeding the poor and welcoming refugees;
- reinforcing the social fabric of this nation;
- promoting the true advancement of women;
- securing the rights of minorities;
- pursuing disarmament, while guaranteeing legitimate defence; all this will succeed only if respect for life and its protection by the law is granted to every human being from conception until natural death.
Every human person - no matter how vulnerable or helpless, no matter how young or how old, no matter how healthy, handicapped or sick, no matter how useful or productive for society - is a being of inestimable worth created in the image and likeness of God. This is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition for her survival-yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weakest and most defenceless ones, those as yet unborn.
With these sentiments of love and hope for America, I now say goodbye in words that I spoke once before: "Today, therefore, my final prayer is this: that God will bless America, so that she may increasingly become - and truly be - and long remain one Nation, under God, indivisible. With liberty and justice for all."
May God bless you all.
God bless America!
To be clear: no, that's not the pyro-boat....
As ever on this beat, gang, just wait for it.